BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian police arrested two people on Monday and sought three more suspects following twin terror-related investigations involving Chechen extremists who were allegedly involved in planning an attack and recruiting people to fight in Syria, authorities said.
At first, 16 men were detained during dawn raids in a half-dozen cities around Belgium and were interrogated before authorities had to release most of them.
The suspects belong to two separate Chechen extremist groups that had links between them, the federal prosecutor’s office said.
The investigation on the planning of an attack centered on a half-dozen Chechens who communicated through the WhatsApp messaging service. U.S. authorities helped Belgian investigators to get a hold of the messages. Four of them were detained but were released because of a lack of evidence, prosecutor Jean-Pascal Thoreau said.
The second investigation centers on a jihadi who had returned injured from Syria, and Thoreau said two were arrested while an arrest warrant was issued against three others. He said the investigation centers on “recruitment, transport and fighting” in Syria.
Belgium has been on alert since Jan. 15 when counterterrorism units foiled what was described as a jihadi plot to mount a major and imminent attack, killing two gunmen and wounding a third in the eastern city of Verviers.
Authorities said they didn’t leave it to late this time.
“We are not in the same situation like six months ago in Verviers when we had to intervene for a looming attack,” Thoreau said. “Here we have a case on an organization which is setting itself up to set up a project for a date still to be determined.”
Reacting to Monday’s arrests, Prime Minister Charles Michel hailed the work of the country’s police and prosecutors in “combating terrorism without pause.”
Belgium has been among the European countries most seriously affected by the departure of young people to fight with the Islamic State group and other extremist organizations in Syria and Iraq.
There are fears that the combatants will inspire attacks in their home countries, or engage in attacks themselves when they come home.
John-Thor Dahlburg contributed to this report.